Case Study: Czech Embassy, Cairo

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Near Cairo’s ancient pyramids sits the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Cairo, a vision of brutalist architecture adapted to suit desert climates. Designed by renowned Czech architect Karel Filsak in collaboration with fellow architect Vladimir Toms, the embassy was erected between 1977 and 1980.

According to a report issued by the Czech embassy on the design of the building, Filsak was an aficionado of modern trends during his time. It wasn’t until the 1960s, however, that he was able to flourish and experiment with various schools of thought, honing his own approach to modernist architecture.

It was during this time of creative and artistic development that Filsak’s working studio became home to a number of budding creatives in Czechoslovakia, who would gather together to discuss and promote new architectural ideas and theories. The soon-to-be celebrities who flooded Filsak’s studio would ultimately collaborate with the Czech architect on various projects, as Filsak began delivering embassy projects for Czechoslovakia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Today, his work is found around the world, from Beijing to Geneva to New Delhi. The Czech embassy in Cairo was Filsak’s last embassy project and was discussed at great length in architecture magazines in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s.

As it stands, the Czech embassy in the Egyptian capital is a strong statement of brutalist architecture, with the residential tower being the dominant design feature of the project. Since its inception, the building’s raw form is massive in size and fortress-like, while its main materials include concrete – common for the modernist movement – and glass panels. More so, the building’s façade is undecorated and does without unnecessary adornment.

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As the embassy is located in a hot, desert climate, Filsak strived to create a brutalist structure that not only represented its genre of architecture but that also answered to the demands of its surrounding environment. Its yellow-beige tone is an ode to the region’s golden sands, while the maze-like style of its exterior appearance is less to do with aesthetics and more to do with filtering the country’s strong sunlight into the building.

The embassy’s massive exterior is further complemented by its equally large interior, which houses ceremonial activities on the ground floor and the usual chancellory functions on the first. Much like its New Delhi counterpart, the centre of the Cairo structure is a large atrium that not only allows in direct sunlight to brighten the various open areas, but also creates a circulation of air and space.

Working with Filsak on the interior design were renowned teachers at the The Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague including Karel Soucek and Ladislav Cepelák, as well as sculptor Josef Klimeš. Their paintings and reliefs can be found throughout the interior, adding context and depth to the space and enhancing the building’s sense of grandeur. The bright colour of the façade was intended as an obvious link to the embassy’s existing environment.

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‘The building from inside is neat and new, but it looks old and is currently having some problems due to humidity from the outside air,’ Nadia Mounier, a Cairo-based photographer, says. ‘Understandably, its bright colour is not easy to maintain because of the dust and pollution of Cairo.’

However, despite the building’s maintenance problems, Mounier adds, ‘The building is really amazing. Its structure and design is very smart. And, it’s well-separated from the outside world, with the high, surrounding greenery.’

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Because of the design of both the building and landscape, the Embassy of the Czech Republic is not only an official space, but also a private community for those who are employed by the Czech government. The embassy’s perimeter, which has the capacity to house 300 people, include the ambassador’s residence, a school, a club for staff, a garden, a swimming pool and a tennis court. The multifunctional space successfully meets the demands of employees.

‘The cultural consultant told me that he doesn’t have to leave the embassy for days. He lives, hangs out and works there,’ Mounier noted while visiting the embassy. Following the split of Czechoslovakia, the embassy continued to serve as the Embassy of the Czech Republic and, in 1997, Vladimir Toms extended the ambassador’s residence even further.

This article was first published in Brownbook’s Design Directory 2015. Photo credit: Nadia Mounier. 

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